El Araj

The recent excavation at El Araj – possible “Bethsaida” of the Bible.

Biblical archaeologists continue to excavate ancient sites in Israel. The discovery of the ancient city of Bethsaida is another one of these sites being uncovered that connects us directly to the Bible.

The Site of El Araj

On the last Israel trip I led (September 4-17 2017), we visited the site of El Araj. Finding the location of this new excavation through the guidance of a few friends, we diverted from the main asphalt road on the NE corner of the Sea of Galilee to a small unmarked dirt lane that took us to the site. Let’s just say that going to “off-the-beaten-track” sites like this is something I like to do with groups and something that every “touristy” Israel tours do not do. For me, visiting this possible site for Bethsaida was the highlight of the trip!

El Araj team

The el Araj team, summer of 2017

About a month ago, the results of the 2nd year of excavation at El Araj were published. I must say that what was discovered at this point is quite exciting. Indeed, the search for the true site of Bethsaida has been ongoing since the 1800s. But it was not until the 1980s when Father Pixner, a Benedictine monk, excavated a site about 1.5 miles north of the water’s edge today (more recently, the University of Nebraska has been digging here). The site called et-Tell reveals an impressive 1st Temple four-chambered gate (9th century BC) and two large Hellenistic houses (2nd century BC). But that is about it. No 1st century ruins contemporary with the time of Jesus or the New Testament have been found. While what Dr. Bryant Wood (of Associates for Biblical Research) has said is important (e.g. “The lack of evidence does not mean the evidence of absence.”), the main leading issue is not just the archaeology but primarily the location of et-Tell. For it to be a fishing village (Bethsaida literally means “house of fishing”), you would expect it to be on the water’s edge. It is not even close. However, this new site, El Araj, precisely is!

silver coins - Nero found at El Araj

The two coins found in the summer of 2017. The left one depicts Nero – 66-67 AD (credit: National Geographic).

We know the El Araj (later re-named Julius by Herod Phillip in 30 AD when he “upgraded” the small Bethsaida to a polis or city) actually was on the water’s edge because of the 1st century Roman bathhouse and mosaic found this year. This one lone discovery tells us that the water of the Sea of Galilee did not come further north (as those who hold to the view that et Tell is Bethsaida contend) or else these uncovered structures would have been underwater. Topographically, el Araj’s location fits much better with the historical (and Gospel) records.

So what has been discovered so far?

map of el Araj

(credit: Biblical Resources)

While I will direct you to a few more detailed articles already highlighting this summer’s most recent finds (e.g. CBN, National Geographic, and Ha-Aretz), the discoveries include Roman structures, mosaics, two coins (one of them a silver coin of Nero – 66-67 AD), a Byzantine Church, and the ruins of a Crusader building. About the significance of the Byzantine Church, co-director Dr. Steve Notley said, “Willibald, the bishop of Eichstätt in Bavaria, visited the Holy Land in 725 C.E., and in his itinerary, he describes his visit to a church at Bethsaida that was built over the house of Peter and Andrew. It may well be that the current excavations have unearthed evidence for that church.”  Only time will tell if this was that church!
About the findings this year, archaeologist Dr. Mordechai Avram stated, “[The discovery of] a bathhouse is something that leads us to understand that we are within some kind of a city, some kind of a sphere of people who are building communal structures, public structures and although the dig here is very small, it immediately hinted us that we are in a very good place to suggest that we discovered the city of Julias.” 

Mosaic floor at el Araj

Mosaic Roman floor (credit: Zachary Wong, 2017)

So visiting this new site was very exciting especially in light of the Gospels telling us this was the home of Peter, Andrew, and Phillip (John 1). It was also the home of the blind man healed by Jesus (Mark 8). Additionally, the Feeding of the 5,000 took place here too (Luke 9). Lastly, this may have been a small fishing village visited by Jesus Himself!

Stay tuned for further updates upon next year’s excavation! If I can work it in my touring and teaching schedule, I would love to dig here in 2018!
It goes without saying that el Araj will be a site we will visit on each and every upcoming trip I lead!

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